Archive for Robert Stephens

Blind Tuesday: Max Carrados Investigates

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2013 by dcairns

It’s high time I did another “blind person in jeopardy” post, I was just thinking, so here we go.

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes was an ITV series of 1971-2 based around the idea that Victorian London was swarming with sleuths, and maybe some of them were interesting enough to warrant televisual treatment of their own. The show ran for two series, with an amazing roster of guest stars impersonating the forgotten flatfoots (flatfeet?), but as to whether any of them really deserve to be called “rivals” of the Baker Street genius, one would have to fall back on the old Scottish verdict of “not proven.”

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In The Case of the Mirror of Portugal, Peter Vaughn Vaughan plays Arthur Morrison’s shady private eye Horace Dorrington, a shameless crook who defrauds his customers, his only saving grace being that he gives the money to charity. Or so we’re supposed to believe. Vaughan is always good at playing menace, fake bonhomie and overbearing ebullience shading into aggression, and these qualities combine with his threatening bulk to rob the character of any lightness he might have had. He quips archly with clients about the deaths of family members, though this is meant to be excused by the customers being foreign and therefore devoid of true family feeling; he’s also a merciless taskmaster with his quavering staff (Kenneth Colley and Petronella Barker). Of course, Holmes was lacking in some of the social graces, but he stood for something, damnit. Reason, possibly.

The episode does feature a touchingly young Jeremy Irons and a heartbreakingly alive Paul Eddington.

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James Cossins (left) and John Neville.

A Message from the Deep Sea stars John Neville, Baron Munchausen himself, as Dr Thorndyke — no relation to Mel Brooks’ headshrinker in HIGH ANXIETY, but certainly a close relative of Edinburgh physician Dr Joseph Bell, who inspired Sherlock Holmes in the first place. He’s another arrogant dick, but thanks to Neville’s elegant playing the show’s final scene turns on a dime from plea for preserving the sanctity of the crime scene, to something rather poetic and mysterious. Neville’s dreamy quality must be what commended him to Gilliam.

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And so to Max Carrados, Ernest Bramah’s blind detective, essayed by Robert Stephens with plummy relish in The Case of the Missing Witness, just after he took the role of Holmes himself (played with a touch of Oscar Wilde) in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES — my favourite Holmes movie. I didn’t think this story made the best use of a blind detective — Fred Zinnemann’s EYES IN THE NIGHT has a good handle on the idea, and I also enjoyed Dario Argento’s CAT O NINE TAILS for its investigations by Karl Malden. Carrados is smart, but this particular plot depends on him happening to meet a key witness at just the time he’s establishing a false alibi for a Fenian terrorist, so the heavy hand of coincidence rather spoils my engagement in Carrados and his brilliance. In fact, I don’t even require him to be brilliant — I would love to see a blind detective based on Mr. Muckle in IT’S A GIFT, rampaging around the crime scenes smashing everything in (everybody else’s) sight, while Dr Thorndyke looks on aghast. Why has no commissioning editor put this on air, starring Robson Green? Since all the other Holmes rivals are a bunch of horrible swine, why not the one who at least has a disability in mitigation? Probably people will still feel sorry for him so he might as well flail about violently and smack them in the face.

The Vox Project

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2010 by dcairns

Presenting, a new and exciting, if somewhat mythical, Shadowplay Project.

For a while I was fascinated by Marina Vlady in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. Well, actually I still am. But when I saw La Vlady in Godard’s TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER, something seemed different. The voice, of course. Welles was happy to use Jeanne Moreau’s own hoarse, sexy tones for her characterisation of Doll Tearsheet (with the logic that, since the British were always fighting the French, and armies have camp followers, there would be a lot of French tottie knocking around Merrie England) but Vlady plays the lady wife of Henry Hotspur, and had to sound plummily English.

So, somebody else provided the voice, and for once Welles couldn’t do it himself (I imagine he’s responsible for Fernando Rey’s and possibly Walter Chiari’s dubbing in this film). The question that vexes me is, who?

The throaty vibrato has a slight air of Fenella Fielding about it, and this is lent weight by the fact that we know Fielding has done a spot of revoicing in her time: she dubbed Anita Pallenberg as the Black Queen in BARBARELLA. But this voice isn’t quite AS extreme. I’m thinking Joan Greenwood, who perhaps is more Shakespearian.

But I don’t know! And it frustrates me.

Nor do I know for sure if that’s the voice of TV comedy legend Richard Briers issuing from beneath the mustache of Jean-Pierre Cassel in Richard Lester’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS. It sure sounds like him (and Briers had worked with Raquel Welch in FATHOM) but it could conceivably be Ian Carmichael. But neither one has any certain connection with Lester. (NB — the IMDb confirms Briers as the voice artist responsible.) Nonetheless, I am morally certain that’s Michael Hordern providing vocals for the captain of the musketeers, played externally by Georges Wilson.

Lester’s films are full of overdubs — the Greek chorus narrating THE KNACK… AND HOW TO GET IT certainly seems to include Dandy Nichols, who appears briefly, and Arthur Lowe, who doesn’t. Both would later perform in THE BED SITTING ROOM.

Fellini’s English language movies contain similar mysteries: in CASANOVA that’s certainly Robert Stephen’s uniquely fluctuating fruitiness emanating from the aristo who hosts a shagging contest in his court. Which makes me suspect that at least one of the crystal-sharp lady’s voices in the film stems from his significant other, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW’s Patricia Quinn. Several of them sound like her.

Film history is full of anonymous voices whispering slyly from the lips of faces famous and infamous and unfamous. And the few people who know the truth aren’t getting any younger. So, without any resources or any free time to devote to the problem, I’m nevertheless launching the Vox Project. All I want is for anyone who knows anything about famous dubs to let me know so I can put it on the record. It would be particularly interesting to hear from people in the industry with direct knowledge of this. Let’s not let this important and sexy information disappear from history.

Spread the word!

My City 4: The Brodie-Snatcher

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2010 by dcairns

THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE.

Miss Jean Brodie and her girls are spied upon by Robert Stephens from his artist’s garrett as they walk through Greyfriars Churchyard. This is a key location in all versions of GREYFRIARS BOBBY (where the wee dug sits by his master’s grave) and also in Val Lewton and Robert Wise’s film THE BODY SNATCHER, which conflates the Burke and Hare story (as filtered through Robert Louis Stevenson’s fictionalization) with that of Bobby, who is disguised under the stage name Robbie. The low-budget Lewton makes do with an establishing shot of some other church and then plunges into the studio.

The real churchyard (or kirkyard, if you want to be sectarian about it) is quite a place, although difficult to capture on film — the real frissons come from extreme details of the weathered stonework, angels and deathsheads with their features eaten away by wind and rain. But it’s also a useful place because you can look in all directions without much chance of seeing anything too modern.

Fiona and I used to live on Forrest Road, overlooking the cemetery just like Robert Stephens, although I starved one flight up, rather than in a garrett. Trilby, Fiona’s then cat, and my current avatar, once escaped out the window, over another rooftop, and into the hallowed grounds. She returned unharmed the next day, which was a relief, since she was a housecat unused to the ways of the exterior. I don’t know what she’d have done if she’d met Greyfriars Bobby’s ghost — and remember, according to the ancient Egyptians (generally reliable) cats can see the spirits of the departed. You know when you catch your cat staring fixedly at nothing…?

A strange feature of the place, just about visible above, is the way some of the grave markers are actually built into the walls of residences surrounding the graveyard. Also, many of the graves are enclosed in little stone buildings with gates that lock, which is largely a protection against body-snatchers. St John’s Churchyard, a short distance away on the corner of Princes Street and Lothian Road, even has a watch-tower to allow a guard to keep an eye out for nocturnal speculators armed with shovels.

The cemetery was used again in BURKE AND HARE: THE MUSICAL, a film I wrote sometime in the last century. Had Burke and Hare ever actually engaged in graverobbing (which is unknown — they were arrested for mass murder, having followed the simpler practice of generating fresh corpses rather than harvesting them from the earth), Greyfriars would probably have been their local place of work.

We were allowed to plant little wooden crosses so we could pretend to dig up a fresh grave. The cemetery is apparently full of unmarked graves, including that of William McGonagall, the world’s worst poet (an influence on both WC Fields and Spike Milligan). It seems likely the grounds may have once been peppered with pauper’s markers. To fake the grave-robbery, a fake mound of earth was erected — no hole was actually dug. The corpse here is played by Simon Vickery, a talented cameraman.

A prostitute who winds up on a slab is played by genius director Morag McKinnon, whose feature debut may be getting released this year (I hope so!). And the director of B&H, Stephen Murphy, now earns a living in special makeup effects, notably on the HARRY POTTER films. Meanwhile, I have a screenplay to write, so –

[sound of echoing footsteps diminishing in the distance]

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